Memory, Repression and Transference in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

A man comes to analysis complaining of strange behavior and large gaps in his memory. “I ditched work today, took a train out to Montauk. I don’t know why. I’m not an impulsive person.” He discovers that there are two years of entries torn out of his diary, entries he does not remember making.

He has other complaints as well. He describes himself as shy—“If only I could meet someone now. I think my chances of that happening are somewhat diminished seeing that I can’t make eye contact with a woman that I don’t know.”—and needy—“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” Nevertheless, he has spent a night walking and lying on the iced over Charles River in Boston with a woman he just met on that trip to Montauk, and was about to take her home to his apartment.

The man’s name is Joel Barish, and he has not actually entered an analytic consulting room (nor the Twilight Zone), but into a film written by Charlie Kaufman, which is close to the same thing.

The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, has made a career of exploring the limits of the human mind by putting it into strange situations. In Being John Malkovitch, people could inhabit each other’s minds. In Adaptation, he shows himself writing the film’s script while divided into twin brothers. It wouldn’t give him much of a living, but in a sense he is a psychoanalyst’s screenwriter. In this film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he allows us to examine the relationship between memory and meaning as it unfolds in the analytic process, and perhaps even gives us a cinematic equivalent of transference.

We soon learn that Joel is the victim of massive repression. Utilizing one of Kaufman’s fantasy devices, he has contracted with a company called “Lacuna, Inc.” to erase his memories of his former girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski, the same woman he has met at Montauk after the repression. We see two gawky technicians setting up some kind of apparatus on Joel’s head as he sleeps, sedated, in his bed. The main action of the film occurs in Joel’s mind as the memories are being erased, with a subplot intertwined as we also watch the neurotic, bumbling memory erasers at work and play during the night that Joel is undergoing the procedure. In fact, the first memories that are erased are Joel’s memories of visiting Lacuna and contracting for the repression (demonstrating what Freud discovered on his way to the Structural Theory, that for repression to work, the process must itself be repressed).

In effect, two parallel processes will now emerge moving in opposite directions. The film shows us Joel’s memories as the technicians are removing them. At the same time, we, the viewers, are experiencing those memories, in effect gaining understanding as Joel is losing it. We learn about Joel’s past at the same time that he is forgetting it.

As Joel’s memories unfold, we begin to piece together the dynamic history of his symptoms. Joel’s symptoms did not start with repression. On the night before the procedure, he looks severely depressed, in anguish, crying and banging his arms on the steering wheel of his car. As the memories unfold, we learn the source of his depression. His girlfriend, Clementine, has left him abruptly and contracted to have him erased from her memory. He has contracted to repress his memories of Clementine partly out of a desire for revenge—it is a way of killing her intra-psychically by destroying his internal representation of her—and partly as a defense against his painful grief. As viewers and analysts, we are already making excellent progress, having made sense of his use of repression.

As more memory is revealed, we can understand how our patient came to grief. Working backwards, from effect to cause, we can again piece together the underlying dynamics. On the surface, we see a hurt and frustrated Joel confronting an irresponsible, hurtful Clementine.

In his memory, Joel is sitting alone at home waiting for Clementine. When she gets home, dressed for a night out, it is late. She has damaged his car, driving drunk. As the argument heats up, Clementine says, “Face it, Joely, you’re freaked out because I was out late without you, and in your little wormy brain, you’re trying to figure out, ‘Did she fuck someone tonight?’” Frustrated and stung, he hurts her back, saying, “Now, see, Clem, I assume you fucked someone tonight. Isn’t that how you get people to like you?” This is the last straw for Clementine. Joel chases after her as she runs out, first apologizing, asking her to come back, sensing that he is losing her both in the memory and with his realization that she is being erased from his life. The scenery crashes and disappears. He screams, “I’m erasing you and I’m happy. You did it to me first.”

But this is again a false surface, a compromise formation which, in effect, serves as a defense against a deeper source of anxiety and shame.

The memories move back a few hours to earlier that evening. Clementine dresses to go out. As she is leaving, she says, “I should have left you at the flea market.” That association takes us back to still earlier in the day at the flea market where we see a different picture, a very affectionate Joel and Clementine. She reaches towards a baby in its mother’s arms. As they resume their walk she says, with a pretty smile,

“I want to have a baby.”

Joel says, “Let’s talk about it later.”

“No, I want to have a baby.”

“I don’t think we’re ready.”

“You’re not ready.”

“Clem, do you really think you could take care of a kid?”

This is where the affect changes. She says, “What?” An argument breaks out. She accuses him of being unable to commit to anything.

We are not usually so fortunate to get to such core material so quickly, but films have to fit years of analysis into about 90 minutes. Our patient is behaving strangely because he has repressed important memories and feelings about his girlfriend. They had broken up over a vicious argument, ostensibly about her irresponsibility (as he saw it), but really about his fear of starting a family, and his fear that she will be unable to care for a child. We are barely into the film and have already seen the importance of memory in constructing meaning and the disruptiveness of repression, a lesson from Anna Freud (1936).

Understanding symptoms is often the opening act for a psychoanalysis, and in this case for a film. As we move on, underlying characterological problems emerge for treatment. We have seen some of the characterological issues for Joel in his opening description of himself: “If only I could meet someone now. I think my chances of that happening are somewhat diminished seeing that I can’t make eye contact with a woman that I don’t know.” “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”  He is inhibited, fearful and needy. His reaction to Clementine’s wish to have a baby is a further clue which will prove to be closely tied to the source of his insecurity.

It is not surprising that he is also afraid to reveal himself. In one of the first memories we see, Clementine tells Joel, “You don’t tell me things, Joel. I’m an open book. I tell you everything, every damn embarrassing thing.” Joel reacts with defensive sarcasm, telling her that “constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” She takes offense, at the same time pushing him, saying “I want to share things, Joel. That’s what intimacy is.” He in effect acknowledges the defense, saying, “My life just isn’t that interesting.” As the night of repression develops, he will, at least in his mind, trust her with his “embarrassing” memories.

In order to have a successful film, you must have sufficient tension, and in order to have a successful analysis, there must be sufficient conflict. The process of repression becomes conflicted as Joel becomes aware of the overly loud and intrusive technicians through his sleep. One of the technicians, a geeky young man named Patrick, had fallen in love with Clementine while they were doing her memory erasure. He had stolen items and information about her relationship with Joel and was using them in a strange form of identity theft, attempting to make her his girlfriend. Joel hears him talking about it and then hears him talking to Clementine on the phone. He is startled to hear Patrick using his pet name for her, “Tangerine”, prompting him to turn to the memory of first using that nick name. Apparently stimulated by jealousy and rivalry, he moves to memories of intimacy with Clementine.

As Joel relives those intimate moments, he begins to fight the repression. He calls plaintively in his dream state to Mierswiak, the scientific genius of Lacuna, to be allowed to keep “this one memory” and then to stop the process entirely. He tries to wake up so that he can tell them to stop as he realizes he doesn’t want to lose his memories of Clementine. Much of the action of the film centers around Joel’s attempt, in alliance with his internal representation of Clementine, to protect his memories and his mental image of her.

The film enlists our allegiance as well by subtly focusing on a dynamic which will prove to be central to Joel’s characterological problems. First, the film begins to raise our sympathy for Clementine by juxtaposing two scenes, one outside of Joel’s mind and the other within.

Patrick goes to Clementine’s house, where she is reacting to her own massive repression of her relationship with Joel. She is frightened and disorganized because of the massive repression. “I’m lost. I’m scared. I feel like I’m disappearing. My skin’s coming off. I’m getting old. Nothing makes any sense.” We are again reminded of Anna Freud’s warning about the disruptiveness of repression. Patrick tries to use what he has learned from Joel’s notebooks, even gives her a gift that Joel had bought for her. She anxiously insists that they go to Boston that night. She does not know it but she wants to reorganize herself around a forgotten memory of going to Boston with Joel, a memory we will see in a moment.

Joel’s next memory reinforces our sympathy for the lost and frightened Clementine. We see Joel and Clementine lying together under a blanket. She tells him how lonely she felt as a child. “Like you don’t matter.” She had thought she was ugly growing up, trying to make her ugly doll, named Clementine, be pretty so that she could “magically change, too.” As Joel kisses her, telling her she’s pretty, she hugs him, saying, “Joely, don’t ever leave me,” in a way that touches us as well as Joel. With these two scenes, we experience Clementine’s vulnerability and fear of loneliness. In a stroke, the film has played upon our own need for intimacy and our own fear of loss. From this point on, we want to reunite the lovers.

It is here, around this memory of vulnerability, loving support and fear of loss, that Joel begs Mierswiak to leave the one memory. Now he recalls loving moments with Clementine, starting with a night in Boston in which she leads him out onto the iced-over Charles River. He is frightened walking onto the ice, but lying next to her, he tells her he is as happy as he can be.

Having tasted loneliness and loving compassion, we are ready to feel Joel’s urgency as he now tries to prevent losing his memories of Clementine. The decoders are trying to separate the lovers while we hope against hope that they can be kept together. Joel enlists the aid of his internal representation of Clementine, the Clementine constructed from his memories, in his battle with Mierswiak and his technicians. In a sense, we see them together again trying to fight the repression, literally running from memory to memory in an attempt to keep ahead of the grim memory editor.

Perhaps I am pushing the analogy too far, but I am here reminded of another feature of the analytic process. When the analyst finds herself pulled into a particular emotional issue it is likely to be an important issue for the analysis. In this case, the central issue is attachment and loss, and it will prove to be central to our “patient’s” character. But to get to the sources of this conflict, we must find a way to childhood memories.

The suggestion, significantly, comes from Clementine, or more correctly from Joel’s internal imago of her. She suggests that he take his memory of her to places that the memory erasers won’t know to look for her. As Joel takes Clementine to his childhood memories, where she does not belong, he is revealing himself in the way that she had wished he would earlier, in effect allowing us to continue to observe his analysis.

In Joel’s mind, Clementine has first pushed him to be more revealing. Now she suggests that he take her to childhood memories. In the context of the film, she is becoming a Virgil for his Dante. As he moves with her to childhood memories, his image of her will take on an additional role.

We see Joel in various childhood situations while Clementine accompanies him, sometimes as an addition to the memory, at one point playing the role of his babysitter. Baby Joel complains that his mother pays no attention to him. The film presents this subtly, but it gives us a likely source for Joel’s insecurity and neediness. Clementine does pay attention to him, even pulling up her skirt to reveal her panties, getting a “Yuck” from Baby Joel. Baby Joel is happy when he has his mother’s full attention as she gives him a bath in the kitchen sink while Clementine’s image keeps him company.

This allows Joel’s memories of Clementine to blend into his childhood memories. Of course, we have a concept in analysis that involves the blending of childhood and current memories—transference.

This transference image has a particular valence. Unlike his mother, Clementine is caring and attentive. His internal image of her is blending with his childhood memories, with Clementine playing a positive, supportive role. She is becoming a gratifying transference image, a “good” mother.

We are reminded of his anxious accusation earlier, “Clem, do you really think you could take care of a kid?” The question reflects his fear and anger about his mother’s ability to take care of him. In the process of having Clementine removed from his memory, Joel is also developing a transference image of  her by which she can take care of a kid, better than his own mother, and can undo his childhood fears. We have seen evidence of it in their adult relationship as well, with Clementine leading a frightened Joel out onto ice where he finds he is very happy.

This is further reinforced. As they try to  hide his image of her from Mierswiak, Joel takes Clementine to his most hidden memories, experiences of shame. We see her with him as his mother catches him masturbating in his bedroom, then we see him bullied by a group of small children. Clementine rescues him from this encounter, telling him, “They’re not worth it” and reassuring him, “It’s O.K., you were a little kid.” This is like the process of analysis, uncovering memories with their affect so that they can be reappraised in the light of adult understanding. Clementine is now serving as a positive transference figure, helping to guide him through the traumatic memories.

There is further reinforcement from the subplots, involving the decoders who are going through their own difficulties while they work on Joel. These involve a series of love triangles. Howard Mierswiak, the middle aged genius of Lacuna, Inc. is admired and loved by his receptionist, Mary, who is in turn sought after by Mierswiak’s chief technician, Stan, a geeky but pleasant young man. Then there is the triangle involving Clementine and her new boyfriend, Patrick, who is Stan’s assistant. Only Joel and Clementine are together at the film’s end. The immature and phony Patrick makes Joel look like a mature oedipal winner by contrast.

At the end of Joel’s memories, we see him on the day he first met Clementine. She had broken into an unoccupied summer home on the beach at Montauk. He had gone in with her reluctantly, but left her as she began to raid the wine cellar, making him fear that they would be caught stealing, but also backing off as she offered to play that they were a married couple. As the memory is about to be removed, he says that he is sorry he did not stay with her that night, revealing a greater willingness to trust to a commitment with her. As the dream is being taken away, she whispers to him that he should meet her in Montauk the next morning, at last revealing to us why he is driven by a sudden impulse to take the train to Montauk at the beginning of the film.

As the story comes full circle, we again see Joel getting out of bed to start the day. Now, we understand, having uncovered the unconscious memory that makes sense of what was originally so perplexing. We also have a very different feeling about Joel and Clementine’s meeting on the train back from Montauk, having seen them together through the ups and downs of an intense relationship. There is something peculiarly affecting when we see two people meet without their consciously knowing that they have been intimate. We experience it in the closing scene of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and its remake, Heaven Can Wait, as well as in the lesser known popular film, Sliding Doors. In each, a man and woman meet by chance, aware of an attraction and an odd sense of familiarity while the viewer knows that they have formed an indelible bond over the course of the film. In each, we expect a happy reunion with a new beginning to the love affair. We are particularly affected by the sense that the lovers knew each other in “another life”. We have the experience of a reunion of lovers who have known each other in the unconscious past. That is particularly appealing as a re-finding of a long lost love; transference, or something like it.

The plot takes a final twist as the rejected receptionist, Mary, having learned that Howard had erased from her memory a previous affair with him, retaliates by sending all of his customers their files, including the tape they had made about the memories they wanted erased. (One of the messages of the film, expressed in Mary’s attempt to revive the forgotten relationship as well as Joel and Clementine’s re-finding of one another is that those who don’t know their personal history are forced to repeat it.) First Clementine and then Joel receive their files and listen to their angry description of the other. It is like a massive reconstruction of repressed material, in this case making them aware of the relationship they have had without being conscious of the actual memories.

This last device allows us to experience a resolution to the original trauma. Having listened to enough of Joel’s taped complaints about her, Clementine leaves him once again, saying, “It’s been nice knowing you and all.”

But as Joel stands by the door watching her leave, he hears his own words,

“What a loss to spend that much time with someone only to find out that she’s a stranger.”

Coming from the tape, it nevertheless sounds like one of his inner thoughts. We are primed to hear it in terms of the wastefulness of letting such an investment in love be lost again. He asks her to wait.

She says, “I’m not a concept, Joel, I’m just a fucked up girl who’s looking for my own piece of mind. I’m not perfect.”

Joel: “I can’t see anything I don’t like about you.”

Clementine: “But you will. You will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”

Joel can now accept this imperfect relationship. He tells her, “OK.”

Clementine accepts it as well: “OK.”

With this happy ending, as we fade to them playing together on a snowy beach, the trauma is repaired. Joel and Clementine are not merely reunited, they have found a way to overcome the angers, fears and frustrations that caused them to lose one another. They are committed to staying in a real relationship, with all its problems. It is a happy ending for the viewer who has experienced their loss and their intimacy first hand.

The “patient” has benefited from his “analysis”. He understands his symptoms, and, more importantly, has made gains in dealing with his character. He is more mature, able to trust the idea of having a family without being troubled by his frustrations with his own mother. He has the confidence to enter into a commitment of intimacy without being certain of the outcome. As so often happens, he does all this without being aware of the influence of transference.

Freud, Anna (1936) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense: The Writings of Anna Freud, Vol. 2. International University Press, 1966.

Herbert H. Stein

Published originally in the PANY Bulletin, Spring, 2005

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2 Comments on “Memory, Repression and Transference in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind””

  1. Scott Hagaman Says:

    Thank you.

  2. Carmine Says:

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not disappoint me as much as this one.
    I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read through, however
    I really thought you would probably have something helpful to
    talk about. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something that you could fix if you
    were not too busy looking for attention.

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